Pacific Crest Trail Diary 5: Day 47 (Mammoth Lakes, CA)
Updated: Sep 21, 2018
I feel different than when I started the trail. I have changed a lot, but at the same time I am still the same person who started this hike so many weeks ago. The same as I started, but renewed and refreshed, and maybe even a bit more clear headed than before.
Starting this hike was hard; it took 15 months. In October of 2013 I didn’t have a lot of choice but to decide to make some changes in my life. If I didn’t get out of the situation that I was in, I wasn’t going to make it very much further, and although it took some time to know what I would do in place of what I had been doing for the years leading up to that time, I knew that something had to change so that I could change. To make a long story shorter, I decided to leave the university, end my relationship with the woman I loved, leave my dog and home, sell off my belongings, and start walking from Mexico. It didn’t make much sense at the time, but neither did working a job that was literally leading to my early death.
But it wasn’t easy to get rid of all of those things; it took me a long time to do it. I worked an extra year for the university while I bartended at a couple of locations to save up money for the trail. Then when the time came, I started walking north. I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel at the start of the hike, and I didn’t have much better an idea of what it was that I did feel. The emotions were all over the place and new. I realize now that it was the feeling of freedom that I hadn’t really felt in such a way for… a very long time. I had been in school since I was 6 years old, and there I was at 29, out of school for the first time in my life basically.
Although there was a lot of good in studying and eventually becoming faculty at a university, I can see now that it produced an idealized image of the world. My time with the school told me that the world is what it appears to be, and that the greatest pursuit that a person can undertake is collecting pieces of paper from an institution of higher education. That’s the only way to really become “educated,” the higher education system tells us.
I like Terrence McKenna’s take on it a bit better though. Terrence said that “If you want a teacher, try a waterfall or a mushroom.” He was a believer in experience, not in faith, and I think that’s what attracted me to his philosophy and away from the higher education system of the United States. The system of higher education, even though it portrays a good goal of educating the country, is really about presenting systems of faith. Twenty-five students sit in rows and listen to someone at the front of the class give them “knowledge.” Then it is the job of those students to take the spoken word of their teacher and try to apply it to the real world, or in some cases, just write an essay about the concept, or perhaps answer some multiple-choice questions.
This is not “education.” This is memorization, institutionalization, submission, and faith. Education happens under a waterfall, on a beach, and in the mountains, so that’s where I went.
Let me be clear in saying that I am not against the institution of higher education in the United States. I am against it as it applies to me for the reason that I do not belong there (although perhaps I once did), and I do have my contention with some of the ways that universities operate, but for the most part, I support their application. I think that a lot of good comes from providing the citizens of our country with learning opportunities beyond the age of 18 when we finish high school. The problem is however that even given universities’ claim to emphasize experiential learning, I don’t think that it’s really working. I think that if you want to teach someone, you should be in the forest or beside a stream. Inside a brick building, under florescent lights, and in between wifi waves does not seem to be the best place to impart knowledge unless it’s faith-based-knowledge.
Have I gone far enough off topic yet? Perhaps…
The point is however that for 20 years of my life (including all of the time that I’ve been able to reasonably call myself an adult) I have been institutionalized in the United States education system, and I needed to get out even more than I could have known at the time. So when I started this hike I felt a lot of things that all boiled down to confusion. I was a fish in an ocean who had spent his whole life in a fish bowl, being fed on regular intervals, having my water changed when it was needed, and always surrounded by perfectly manicured decorations purchased at the local pet shop. To be in the ocean after all of that time was so much to take in, and it still is. That’s where the feeling of being lost came from though. I should have gotten out before I did, but I stayed until I was almost thirty.
When I started the trail I thought a lot about miles, speed, distance, time, climbs, and basically everything that you’d associate with hiking a long distance trail. I learned however that those things were killing me after some time. Sure you can use that mind set for a week or two, but after that much time it becomes too much. To think about 2,650 miles and Canada was overwhelming, and it weighed on me every day.
There wasn’t a real turning point, no morning where I just woke up and said, “Oh, now I see the hike and world differently.” There was however a realization that took place over time that I do not feel the same as I did before I started this hike, or even the way that I felt at the start of the hike. I now feel really comfortable on trail. I don’t really think much about miles except for a time or two a day when I’m trying to figure out how long it’ll take to get to the next resupply point and whether or not I have enough food to get there comfortably. Actually, it might be most appropriate to say that I really just don’t think a lot when I’m on trail—I just do.
Here’s an example: I wake up and it’s dark. I don’t know what time it is, but I know that it’s dark and I’m in my tent, and I’m suddenly awake. Then in about ½ a second, I realize why I’m awake—rain drops are starting to fall, and the tent is without a fly because the sky was clear when I set up camp. Then, in the course of about 4 seconds, I’m out of my sleeping bag, out of my tent, and throwing a rain fly over the shelter as rain steadily continues to fall. Only after it’s all set up do I even truly wake up to look up at the sky and feel the rain fall onto my face. It all happens as reflex, and I feel complete detachment from it. I’m not upset that it’s raining, I’m not worried or scared about it, and I’m not really thinking about the actions of putting the fly on. It all comes like a reflex.
That’s what I mean by “not thinking.” At the start of this trip, that scene would have played out the same in terms of actions, but I would have been attached to it. I would have thought, “Ah, f***; I have to get up and put the fly on. Then it’s probably going to be raining tomorrow too.” No, instead of that, today I just go through the actions with acceptance. It is a feeling of zen, I think. It is a peaceful observation of “the now” and this largely characterizes most of the miles I hike. I observe the trees, birds, and deer and simultaneously acknowledge my connectedness with those things and my separation from them. Ah, that simultaneous existence of contradictory ideas. That’s what I live for.
So in a lot of ways, I’ve accomplished what I set out to accomplish—I’ve become changed after doing what I could to kill off the person who I used to be before this hike. I know that I’m only 1/3 of the way through, but I feel it in a big way, and it’s not that I’m “happy” about it, so much that I’m at peace with it.
I am changing physically as well, and that is the hard part to deal with. I try to work out my upper body as often as possible, but I don’t do it as much as I should. Maybe twice a week I’ll get a full workout in, and that isn’t even half of what I need to be doing to maintain my form. And because of this I’ve become a lot smaller. I have had multiple opportunities to step on a scale since the trip started, but I’ve never done so; I know that it will only depress me. Some people I know came onto this trail and wanted to lose weight, but I did not. That is what’s happened though. My legs probably aren’t much different than when I started, but my upper body is. My arms are small, and my back is shrinking. I worried for a bit that I might be getting fatter in addition to losing the muscle mass, but today I don’t think that’s the case. I still seem to be as lean as when I started, but I’m much smaller, and that’s hard for me to deal with.
I got picked on a lot in middle school and some in high school. I remember Chris Craig and how he’d call me a f****t because I didn’t play basketball or whatever sport the popular kids were taking part in at the time. I remember how the girls would never pay me any attention and I didn’t know what to do about it until I started working out. The goal, back when I was 16, was probably to get attention from girls by working out, but that never panned out. Building my figure did give me confidence though. It made me less embarrassed of who I was, and for the last ten years, my physical form has been a lot of what I use to identify myself. It is who I am. So for that reason it’s really hard for me to be becoming smaller as a result of the trail.
I know that when I return to the “real world” it’ll be easy to put size back on (I know the concept of muscle memory pretty well), but it sucks that I no longer feel like me in that way while I’m on trail and it does worry me to think that I’ve lost this much size in 900 miles and I’m only just 1/3 of the way through this trail.
Trail names are still a weird thing to me, and I’ve written that before, but it’s been awhile. I walked into Bishop (my last trail journal entry) as “Brandon,” but I didn’t expect that would last long. For the most part, everyone has a trail name. At least half of the people on trail got their name during week one, or day one, or in some cases they even came to trail with a name picked out for themselves. In a way, I was really excited for a trail name for the reason that I’ve always hated the name “Brandon” (maybe “hate” is too strong a word for it, but you get the point). But then I started the trail solo and I’ve really remained that way; I don’t hike with anyone for the most part and I almost always camp alone. So it would be difficult for anyone to give me a trail name—no one gets the chance to really get to know me on trail.
So when I’d introduce myself to people on trail, I’d usually say, “Hi, I’m Brandon. I don’t have a trail name.” Then they’d ask how I made it so many miles without one and they’d say that they’d personally find me one. Then I’d never see that person again. I could see however that other hikers looked at me as different because I didn’t have a name like theirs.
I have however been offered trail names, and hopefully by listing them you’ll see why I didn’t want to take any of them: “Cheesecake,” “Strawberry Cheesecake,” “Bubbles,” “He-Man,” “Muscles,” “Blueberry,” and “Strawberry,” to name a few. I didn’t want to be known as any of that.
People were really pushing them on me though, so when a trail name was presented to me that I could resonate with, I finally took it. I’d venture to say that I was among the last 5% of hikers to take a trail name.
My name on trail is now “Wormwood.”
Since I wrote last, I’ve hiked about 124 miles. I really don’t know what I was thinking when I was in Bishop and doing my last resupply, because my notes told me that I was supposed to pack 5 days of food for that segment, but I somehow thought that I could do it in only 4. So I packed 4.5 days of food (1/2 day of “extra”) and hit the trail. One day later I realized the mistake I’d made and that I needed to start hurrying through to my next resupply point. On the one hand this really sucked because it meant that I would have to blast through this part of the Sierras (such a shame since the scenery is so unbelievable), but then the weather turned bad and it sort of made sense to make heavy miles and get to Mammoth Lakes to resupply.
Every day it has either been heavily overcast or outright raining. I had one day that it absolutely poured on me. So even though I’d wanted to go and relax next to a lakeshore, the weather wasn’t conducive to such activity. So I didn’t have much choice but to put it off, and considering that I was short on food, it all sort of worked out. Unfortunately however, I had to pass up a lot of really beautiful lakes that I would have given the world to spend my time beside. That said, I know with absolute certainty that I will return to these mountains in the future. I will come back with a fly rod and more time. I really would like to come out here with my dad or grandfather maybe next year or the year after and just hike a few hundred miles, taking it really slow and just enjoying my time. It’s hard to do that on a PCT schedule, but I still have a really good time.
My dad asked me yesterday if I’m having “fun” out here, and I hesitated, then said “no.” I told him that it’s a lot of work, and sometimes it’s scary, and sometimes it’s exciting, adventurous, surreal, magical, unbelievable, inspiring, terrifying, sublime, spiritual, and mystical, but that “fun” really isn’t the right word for it. I’m here to transform, not really to have “fun.”
So anyway, I’ve had to put on a lot of miles in the last week since I realized that my food supply was short. I had entered the Sierras with the plan of hitting 15-20 mile days, but because of my food situation, I had to hit solid 25-28 mile days throughout. This put me into Mammoth just in time to catch the post office yesterday afternoon before they closed for the weekend. There I got a new backpack (replacement for damaged one that I had prior), a new tent (same story), new gators, and my food resupply box. Dealing with the postal service was an absolute pain, but what can I say—that’s no real surprise.
Today the weather looks a lot better though and the forecast is promising. I’m really bummed that I can’t be in Flagstaff for the Firefly festival this weekend, but that’s the way that it is. At least I know that the coming week will be blue sky, and since I still have a lot of miles left in the Sierras, I’m planning to slow my pace and relax a bit on trail.
I’ve written a lot today without writing a word about the thing that’s most on my mind, so I guess I need to get that out there.
I’ve been spending a lot of time considering discontinuing the trail in the preceding week. It has nothing to do with the physical challenges of walking 2,650 miles—it’s 100% social issues. In a lot of ways I do not feel like I belong here (or anywhere in the world for that matter), but that’s something that I’ve come to accept and grow used to. It’s the anger that I feel that is killing me. I feel a lot of anger towards others, but then I immediately reflect that back upon myself. I realize that I have created this reality for myself, and so no one is to blame but me.
Some of you know what happened between my little brother and I; most of you do not. And of those of you who think you know, you probably know just a short version of an extremely long story. My little brother really hurt me though, and so I feel a tremendous amount of anger towards him. Like I said though, it’s my own fault. I created the circumstances that allowed him to do what he did. And so when I hate him, I hate myself for letting him hurt me.
A long time ago I dated a girl who we’ll call Jessica (this is not her real name). We were in college together, and when I went to Alaska to work in the oilfield for the summer, she called me and told me that she had become pregnant with my child, but terminated. She told me that she thought I had the right to know, and that’s why she wasn’t just keeping it to herself. This really affected me a lot that summer. I thought about it every day. To make a long story short, when I came back from Alaska 3 months later, I quickly learned that Jessica had indeed been pregnant, but it was a result of her hooking up with her ex-boyfriend IMMEDIATELY after I left town. She thought that I’d find out about the pregnancy termination eventually, so instead of hiding the whole thing, she told me that the child was mine.
I tell this story as an illustration and exemplification of why I have issues with trust. I have been hurt a lot by my willingness to trust people (friends, co-workers at the university, family, loved ones, lovers, and just strangers), and so I’ve learned not to put trust in anyone but myself.
I trusted my brother though. He and I had not spoken in almost 10 years when I invited him to come down to Arizona and join me on this hike that I’d already put so much work towards. I trusted him and I respected him and I loved him. It felt like the first time in my life that I’d ever had a brother. I knew better than to give that kind of trust to anyone, but I thought that brotherhood made it okay. And that was my mistake, and that is why I’m angry at myself. I knew not to give trust, but I still did, and by opening myself up to someone, I produced an opportunity to become very hurt.
And that’s what happened. My little brother hurt me in a very serious way. I think about that pain every single day. I have anger, hatred, and resentment that fills my heart every day.
This is the only thing that’s leading me to believe that I may not be able to complete the trail. He has become a symbol of my own failure and an illustration of my inability to do anything for myself. He is a representation of my broken-ness, and an ember fueling my self-loathe.
I do not expect for anyone to really understand where I’m coming from or relate to my feelings, but I want this journal to be an honest reflection of my hike, and the truth is that I spend a lot of time thinking about my anger towards myself for reaching out and trying to help my brother by inviting him on this hike. I never see him on trail, but I deal with his presence every day. Each day I meet someone who asks me if I’ve seen my little brother, or how he’s doing, or they tell me that they hiked with my brother and that he was a really great guy.
What I hear however is “f*** you, f*** you, f*** you, f*** you.” It’s like spitting in my face. It’s like telling me, “hey, you know that girl who blamed her pregnancy on you, even though she’d been cheating and gotten knocked up by her ex-boyfriend? Yeah, I hear that she’s doing really great. Have you seen her lately? How come you two aren’t hiking together?” Every day I hear those questions, and it makes me hate myself.
That alone is why I may not complete this journey to Canada. I still plan to hit the trail tomorrow, but in truth, the burden of my little brother is leading me to question whether or not I should be here. I promised myself before starting the hike that if I ever wanted to quit that I’d give it at least a week of contemplation, and that’s sort of where I am now. I don’t know where else to go or what else to do—I’ve burned so many bridges to create this opportunity to hike, so I don’t know what’s left if I fail to walk to Canada. That’s not true though, I do know what’s left, and I just am not willing to face that reality or let it come to fruition.
But that is what it is. I hate myself for putting trust in another person after so many people have taught me not to trust, and that hatred for myself is killing me inside on every mile. I want for it to subside, but I don’t know how. The longer that I spend on trail, the more I feel anger and resentment, and since I largely started this hike to escape feelings like that, it makes me question why I’m here.
I don’t know why I’m here, but I am, and that is what it is.
I feel uneasy being so honest about the situation with my little brother in this public forum, but again, I want this journal to be an honest reflection of the life that I’ve found on trail. And ultimately, I haven’t said a thing. I haven’t told you any of the details. I haven’t told you why I asked my brother to come and live with me, or where he was before that. I haven’t shown you the ways that we became so close. I haven’t told you about our trip to the Grand Canyon in April, or what happened after. I haven’t told you about the girl. I haven’t told you about the gun.
There is so much that I want to lay on the page and I want for everyone to see from my perspective, but I have to sit with the knowledge that this is not the time or place for that. I also have to realize that this is not the end of the story. A lot played out with my little brother in the 8 months that we lived together, but most of it that matters happened in just a few weeks. And even though I want for everyone to know every detail of those events, the story isn’t over and I need to make peace with that fact. I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know if I continue hiking or if I stop in a week or two. I don’t know if I see my brother again or if he goes away forever. I don’t know where I see myself in six days, six months, or a year. I don’t know how the weather changes or how the stream bends during the miles tomorrow, and for the most part I’m okay with that. I have made peace with not knowing. I still fight my demons though, and some of them I’ve shown you a glimpse of on this page.
There is so much that happens out here on the trail, and I only wish that I could bottle it up and show it to you all. If I did that however, the world would change, and it’s for that reason that I have to continue trying to word the ineffable, even considering the impossibility of such a task.
So take this bite and do with it what you will. I hope that it meant something, and I hope that someday I can read back through it and find some clarity in it all.
Until I’m able to write again, I wish you all the best.